When it comes to managing waste, NSW is in trouble

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NSW waste management in trouble. I am writing (again) about where New South Wales is going wrong in matters concerning waste and the circular economy.

I decided to write four short articles to go through the issues in detail. Yes, it takes more than one article. The first two articles deal with a short inventory of what, in my opinion, is wrong. The third article tries to explain the possible causes of why things went wrong. The fourth article is a practitioners’ view of what and how we could do better.

So, what is wrong?

Let’s start at the bottom of the waste hierarchy, with landfills.

The NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2014, published June 2021, tells us that airspace for non-putrescible waste (inert or non-biodegradable waste) for Greater Sydney will expire in 2028 and for putrescible waste (biodegradable or rotting waste) in 2036. No big deal, you might think. Or, you might think, hold on, I thought we recycle so much and my rubbish bin (the one with the red lid) gets smaller and smaller, why would we need landfills after all? Don’t we have a zero waste target or so?

Well, I am sorry to tell you that firstly, the numbers are bad and secondly, the 2041 strategy is playing silly buggers with the numbers.

Firstly, NSW generates about 19.4 million tonnes every year (tonnes per annum or TPA) of waste (2018/19) and landfills about 6.8 million TPA. That’s 35 per cent landfill and 65 per cent recycling, recovery, and so on. The 6.8 millionTPA are made up of:

  • residual household waste (rMSW) of 2.2 million TPA
  • residual commercial and industrial waste (C&I) of 2.7 million TPA
  • construction and demolition waste (C&D) of 1.9 million TPA

The 2041 Strategy only shows the rMSW and C&I waste in its graph referring to residual waste and expiring landfill airspace, pretending this is the only residual waste and its only 4.9 million TPA. In truth it is still 6.8 million TPA (silly buggers).


The strategy assumes the residual waste going to landfill by 2040 will be 6.9 million TPA (rMSW and C&I). In reality, the residual from C&D waste will also need to find a home. That is now 1.9 million TPA. But, the EPA’s new regulations for “recovered fines” (don’t ask, too complicated) will disallow a large portion of this waste to be reused or recycled back into the economy, so in reality this figure is very likely to be more like 2.9 million TPA. So, in reality, NSW in 2040 will need to find a home not for 6.9 million TPA but for 9.8 million TPA (= 6.9 + 2.9). That’s nearly 10 million tonnes per annum.

So, where does our residual waste go? At the moment, Sydney only has two landfills which take putrescible waste. Putrescible waste is the waste that sits in the bin with the red lid and stinks and rots if not managed properly and quickly. It’s the waste that creates public health issues if not attended to. 15 years ago, Sydney had six landfills that could accept putrescible waste: Lucas Heights, Eastern Creek, Jack’s Gully, Belrose, Woodlawn and Bankstown.

Today we have two: Woodlawn and Lucas Heights.

Okay, okay, you say, but those two landfills have ample capacity. According to the strategy, they will last until 2036 and that’s a long time away. So, what’s the drama?

Let me fill you in.

Lucas Heights will be full in six to eight years and then there will only be one landfill, Woodlawn, until 2036. Any redundancy in the system? Zero. Unless… (To give you an idea, Bingo Industries: Waste Management & Recycling Centres could be sitting on a gold mine, but even that would only be a band aid.)

The planning for a new putrescible landfill can take 10 years (even the EPA acknowledges that – see page 23 of the 2041 strategy). But there’s more.

Do you know what happens when a landfill with some millions of tonnes of waste in it catches fire?

During the bushfires in 2019/20, a fire came within a few hundred metres of Lucas Heights landfill. If it had come any closer the landfill would have needed to close.  A true environmental disaster could have ensued. The landfill could burn for weeks, if not months or years. Phew, that was lucky, then, wasn’t it? Yep, it was.

Now, industry sources tell us that during the torrential rain we had recently, the train connection to Woodlawn landfill was cut. That’s where the majority of our waste goes.

Would you like to know if the NSW EPA or anyone else in the NSW Government has a plan for how to deal with such a situation? An essential service, necessary to guarantee public health, safety and sanitation, could just come to a grinding halt. It’s a bit like the trains not running one Monday morning, with no warning. There is no plan.

What to do, you ask, especially once Lucas Heights closes down in a few years’ time? Don’t worry, they tell you, they’ve got it under control. For now, we take everything to Lucas Heights and if worse comes to worse, we open up some closed landfills or take waste to Newcastle. We’ve got emergency powers, we can do it.

Sorry, say I, you’re dreaming. They don’t even know what is involved in opening up a closed landfill and while Newcastle certainly has a large capacity theoretically, they only build enough cell space to cater for their own needs. They cannot accept a few hundred thousand tonnes from Sydney on the hop.

In essence, we came close, too close, for an essential service to be stopped with no warning. Was this situation avoidable? Absolutely. How? By simple planning.

Look at Victoria, for example. Enough landfill airspace for 30 to 50 years.

Everyone in this industry knows that Waste Management requires long term planning. What do we have in NSW? Failure.

This predicament was utterly predictable. In fact, it was predicted. Yet either no one listened or those who knew left and no one bothered to read old reports. Who knows? The EPA says that Sydney is running out of landfill space. No space for non-putrescible waste by 2028 (that’s in six years). And no space for putrescible waste by 2036. But in the meantime, when Lucas Heights closes in a few years’ time, Sydney will be 100 per cent dependent on Woodlawn, which is vulnerable to disruptions of the train line. Is that good planning? No. That is no plan at all. If this was to happen in a company, the executives responsible would be sacked. And rightly so.

But it gets worse. (Sorry about that!)

If you look at the NSW EPA Infrastructure Guide 2041 it will tell you that Greater Sydney needs by 2030 additional non-putrescible landfill capacity to accept an excess of three million TPA plus additional putrescible landfill capacity to accept  in excess of 500 thousand TPA. Ah, and I nearly forgot: Greater Sydney also needs “at least” one large scale regional recovery facility … to reduce the need for additional landfill capacity in this decade.

Please read the above again and let it sink in. Slowly.

Do you, dear reader, have any idea how long it takes for any major waste-related activity to be approved in NSW? Years, you think? Yes, but how many? Try six years, if all goes well, starting with finding a property or “acceptable location”. You want to find a location for a landfill and get approval? Try eight or 10 years.

Now, it is 2022 and in eight years’ time the EPA says we “need” space for an additional 3.5 million tonnes of waste per annum. That means four to five large or, more likely, seven to 10 mid-sized landfills. I know that the so-called veterans of the industry at this stage of the story either laugh or start weeping. What is the annual capacity of the largest landfill we currently have? Woodlawn. It can take maybe one million TPA.

Is it possible to get four to five or seven to 10 landfills approved, built and commissioned within eight years? Not realistically.

So, let me tell you this: all alarm bells and sirens have to go off.

Why? Because the NSW government has been asleep at the wheel. Your most basic waste management service may not be available within a few years’ time or after the next flood. Failure of planning, failure to listen and understand.

So, in layman terms, we are in deep trouble. Who to blame? Not the EPA.

I’ll tell you who to blame in article three.

Originally published by The Fifth Estate, for more information click here.

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